Right on Time
When people come to a facilitated event, they are making a significant contribution of their time and energy.  Skilled facilitators honour the time available and make good use of it, managing time effectively in several ways.
Schedule for participants
Facilitators honour the real lives of participants by scheduling events when people can really come.  When it is not possible to check with the individual participants, it is important to give people enough advance notice to make plans.
When scheduling, it is good to know the group’s yearly rhythm and avoid times dedicated to other things.  Meetings scheduled around Christmas, on religious or national holidays, or summer long weekends are not likely to get passionate responses from invitees.  For some groups, the appropriate time of day is critical.  For public events, it may be necessary to claim the date well in advance.
Allow time for the topic
Some group leaders make the mistake of not allowing enough time for complex discussions or difficult decisions.  It is easy to lead a group to a pat decision that economizes on time, but sits uneasily with them because they know intuitively that the discussion only dealt with the part of the iceberg above the water.  The mind and psyche need time to dig underneath the obvious solutions.  Time is needed too, for data to swish backwards and forwards in people’s brains.  Once the full parameters of a challenge have been grasped, creating solutions may come more easily.  Allowing enough time honours the topic and enables the group to address it appropriately.
This has an implication for agendas.  An agenda list with too many items can result in poor treatment of some or all items, and only sets the “teeth” of a group on edge.  No one wants endless discussion of Christmas party details when the collapse of overseas markets is next on the agenda.  People may turn completely off, or worse, leave the meeting in despair or anger.  When the agenda list is long, it sometimes helps to deal with the short items first for a sense of momentum before coming to major items.  Or the chair could put the major items first, and deal with the rest as announcements at the end.
Arrive early
Arriving early allows the facilitator to liaise with the client, set up the room, check refreshments, and eliminate anything that could distract the group.  It is crucial that everything be ready when people begin to arrive, so that the facilitator can greet them and make them feel at home.  If the facilitator starts the program harried from rushing around, rapport with the group will be lost.  Being on site early enough to be totally prepared honours the group.
Begin appropriately
If an event is scheduled for 9 am, and everyone is seated, looking expectantly at the facilitator, you had better get started.  But starting precisely on time with many participants missing may communicate little respect for those participants.  Every group has its own culture.  While timing the event is carefully planned, the plan must be balanced with the group’s norms and expectations.  It’s somewhat like walking a tightrope.  Starting on time might honour the punctual one, but might require you to go over things twice.  It is often helpful to discuss when to start with those who are present.
Pace the group
Knowing how long every technique takes is critical  When inviting each person in a group of 30 to speak on an issue, it is no use setting aside 15 minutes for the process – it will take at least an hour.  Think through ahead of time the procedures you need to use and the time required for each step.
Pacing is key to effective facilitation.  Good facilitators are always aware of clock time, and also of rhythm.  Like running a long distance race, a facilitator needs to know when to move quickly and when to slow down.  Varying the pace can keep the event interesting.  For example, objective and reflective parts might go faster than interpretive and decisional.  A slow pace is helpful for careful, deliberate conversations.  A quick pace can encourage the use of intuition.  If the facilitator is seated, the pace often slows down and becomes more reflective;  if the facilitator moves around the room energetically, the pace often quickens.
Finish on time
It is almost always necessary to finish at the agreed upon time.  Participants often make commitments based on a scheduled ending time.  Running late violates those commitments.  If additional time is needed, the matter should be discussed with the group.  If substantial extra time is needed, another session may be required.
Time is a facilitator’s ally.  Running out of time does happen, but may reflect the facilitator’s failure to plan in detail for each step of a process.  Deadlines can be a great help in getting good work done.  The skilled facilitator knows how to keep time, beat time, end on time, and use all of it effectively.
Wayne Nelson
Copyright Edges Magazine, 1996.
Reprinted by permission